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IAVA | July 11, 2022

READ: Be All You Can Be … Except for LGBTQ+

Written by: James Fitzgerald, U.S. Army Veteran

“Be All You Can Be” was the recruiting slogan of the U.S. Army for over 20 years. Growing up in Tennessee, I can still vividly recall Army TV commercials with that slogan filling the background while I played with my G.I. Joe action figures. I remember thinking how incredible it would be to join the U.S. Army and do all the cool things I was pretending to do while playing make believe with action figures. 

For me and hundreds of thousands of others who made the decision to enlist in the U.S. Army, this slogan held a deep, intangible meaning. It united us — individuals from different backgrounds, beliefs and reasons to serve — under the common goal of protecting our great nation. It inspired us to be all we can be, for ourselves, for each other and for our country.

This slogan not only held service members to a high standard of dedication and work ethic, but represented the United States’ promise to lift service members up and enable us to reach our full potential — or at least it should have. 

When I joined the U.S. Army as an infantryman in 2005, I couldn’t wait to live my childhood dream. Unfortunately, as a gay man in the military, I realized my dreams came with conditions. The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy took away my opportunity to be my true self — and I was forced to live with it, if I wanted to keep my promise to my country and to keep myself safe.  

The military did not take kindly to those who didn’t stick to the “straight” and narrow, and DADT required me to keep a substantial part of my being hidden. I changed individuals’ names, pronouns and other information, while relaying my stories — even to  those closest to me —  so I wouldn’t be discovered.

Each word used to maintain my cover felt like an incision into my spirit, removing a little bit more with each breath. My biggest fear was believing I’d never know true acceptance since the majority of my existence consisted of playing a supporting character in my own life story. 

More than 100,000+ service members were unjustly discharged under the DADT policy, and I spent years trying to avoid a similar fate. I could have kept living in my military-grade closet, but all that changed in 2010. On the evening of Veterans Day, when I was with the 101st Airborne in Afghanistan, I was almost killed by Taliban insurgents.  

We were ambushed as my squad was leading our entire unit up a steep mountainside. I was the first to be injured when a gunshot wound to my left thigh knocked me off the mountain where I fell 60 feet into a ravine. I fractured my knee, broke my right femur and sustained a host of  internal injuries. As I lay incapacitated, without a weapon or a radio, I feared I wouldn’t survive. 

Fortunately, I was rescued, but that harrowing experience caused me years of emotional trauma that I never thought I would recover from. From that day on, I grappled with the notion of coming dangerously close to death without ever being able to be true to who I was.

A year into this difficult stage of my life, President Barack Obama repealed DADT and provided LGBTQ+ service members the opportunity to serve openly without reprisal. The closet door was finally flung open. Although this was a huge step for the countless active-duty LGBTQ+ service members and veterans, for someone who’d spent an entire career hiding and lying about my identity, I felt no relief.

The announcement, as meaningful as it was, didn’t make generations of discrimination go away. I wanted to stop denying who I was, but I still needed support to walk the path towards acceptance, something I didn’t have back then. So I kept silent and kept serving in secrecy. 

My military service concluded in 2014 when I was medically retired due to the injuries I sustained while deployed to Afghanistan. I moved to New York City shortly after, and was able to meet other LGBTQ+ veterans through local events from the veteran service organization I’m a member of — Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. The time I spent with these veterans helped reignite my spirit and showed me that I was able to be all I wanted to be — not just for myself, but for others as well. 

With their help, I began taking down the wall between my identity as a gay man and as an Army veteran. I began learning to feel secure enough to declare myself as a member of both communities instead of hiding one part of me in favor of the other, depending on who I was around. I was finally beginning to digest the effects of the repeal and what serving my country openly meant — although it was away from the battlefield.  

Armed with these newfound realizations, my new mission became to ensure all LGBTQ+ service members have the opportunity to live their truth and heal from harmful policies, such as DADT. I joined IAVA’s annual advocacy event on Capitol Hill in 2018 and spoke with my New York congressional representatives of my time serving during DADT. I shared insights I’d gained through my experiences that were vital for them to consider in order to implement necessary actions to support our veterans. 

Though the U.S. Army has changed since my service — with a new slogan and different policies — the message to “be all you can be” will forever remain a part of the army’s history, guiding them on how they ought to protect and uplift their members. And to those LGBTQ+ veterans who were told they were not enough, I am a loud and proud, openly gay U.S. Army veteran who is saying “YOU ARE WORTHY.”

James Fitzgerald is a U.S. Army Veteran and a member of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. You can reach him on LinkedIn or Twitter.

This piece was originally published by The Well News on July 1, 2022.

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